Joseph Bernard

Language of Nature, Joseph Bernard

At Arena, through November 12

From the Chicago Reader, October 27, 2000 issue 


Joseph Bernard’s nine paintings at Arena (two of which are diptychs) don’t simply evoke nature: he mixes paint and actual plants on his surfaces, covering them with a layer of clear urethane. Born in 1941 and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he’s lived in the Detroit area for many years, teaching at the Center for Creative Studies. Rauschenberg was one key early influence, but in 1969, Bernard told me, “I saw one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen,” Stan Brakhage’s short film Mothlight (1963). Brakhage collaged actual plants and insect parts between strips of clear perforated tape; watching this film, one glimpses moth wings and grasses flickering by. When Bernard arrived in Chicago for graduate study at the School of the Art Institute in 1970; he discovered that Brakhage had just been hired to teach film history; Bernard attended all of his lectures.

By the late 70s Bernard was making abstract films in the tradition of Brakhage and his colleagues; by the mid-80s his films were collages and soon he stopped making films and began adding strips of Mothlight – like collaged film to paintings. His work is on a wood-composite material called wafer board, which he paints both before and after adding collage elements. Thaw consists of two long, horizontal panels, a bit like film strips, incorporating samples of the flower, dusty miller, amid less distinct forms – actually abrasion from Bernard sanding his work. Like Takaezu’s designs after firing, these abrasions are not completely under his control, adding an organic element, and the clusters of similar forms rhythmically repeating reminded me of the Brakhage films.

Bernard collaged moonflowers onto the surfaces of two works – a single row of five flowers in Mandinga, three rows of seven in Blood Moon. The thickness of the flowers varies, so the paint shows through with varying intensity, illuminating the plants’ structures as the projector beam does in Mothlight. Bernard frames his images with multiple painted rectangular borders, which together with the thick paint and reflective surfaces gives these images a sacramental quality; the moonflowers resemble not only tiny trees but images in narrative Renaissance altarpieces. I also though of late medieval illuminated manuscripts, with their repeating floral patterns around central images, and of Roman wall paintings, and Bernard confirmed that he had been inspired by a book of wall paintings from Pompeii.

The mottled, sometimes abraded paint not only looks organic but adds depth; all the parts of Bernard’s surfaces seem to float in ambiguous, shifting relationship to one another, somewhat like Takaezu’s. But Bernard’s pieces have a peculiar glow, as if light were emanating from within them – a look likely inspired by film. Of course the film image hovers in virtual space, chimera-like, while Bernard’s works are clearly objects. But if you stand back and shift position just a bit, they also seem to flicker and glow.

The ambiguous depth in Takaezu’s and Bernard’s work transforms their pieces from mere elegant objects into engaging experiences over time. And Bernard’s borders are not truly limiting: whether he selects 5 or 21 moonflowers is arbitrary – we understand that what we see are samples from a much larger population. The fields of many tiny forms in the diptych Mix Remix have a feeling of “no beginning, no end,” to use Bernard’s words. Amid the plants and strangely organic abraded forms are bold geometric shapes that look like fragments of letters, suggesting links between decay, the evolution of plants, and the beginning of language – all the shapes begin to seem symbolic, but the absence of specific symbols opens up the piece rather than closing it down.

In the center of Flag are five banner-like horizontal colored bands, each containing a row of plants – but this flag is no fixed symbolic entity. Instead Bernard presents us with something more like a sample case or museum display of objects that we’re still in the process of learning to see.


BLOODMOON    1999   24" x 48"



FLAG   1999   24" x 33"



By Fred Camper , Copyright © Fred Camper 2000

Additional articles by Fred Camper and others can be purchased from the Chicago Reader Archives